BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com
The Panthers aren't used to being in the situation of closing out a playoff series. After all, it's been 16 years since they've done it last.
Believe it or not, that may be a better historical perspective than the ones the Devils have going into Tuesday's pivotal sixth game of their opening round series.
The Devils have lost their past four games in which they were facing elimination – including three straight at the Prudential Center in Newark.
New Jersey, which has won the Stanley Cup three times since 1995, hasn't escaped the opening round of the playoffs since 2007.
The pressure is on. And it's not just on the Devils.
“There's desperation on both sides,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “Our feeling is that we're enjoying this process. It's not easy – there are a lot of ice bags being used – but no one wants this to stop. It's a great feeling.''
The Panthers, in their first postseason dance since 2000, can keep New Jersey's unwanted streak alive with a win Tuesday.
Florida would advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a victory in Game 6; If the Devils win, the series returns to South Florida for Game 7 on Thursday.
“We have a lot of confidence in this room,'' Brian Campbell said. “We know what is at stake here but we have to have confidence and be loose. You have to be prepared mentally and be ready to battle. We know it's going to be tough, but it's fun. You want to win those games, take the series, in their building.''
Winning in Newark won't come easy – not when facing a desperate Devils squad. New Jersey has taken control in three of the first five games with either a fast start at the beginning of a game – or a quick start to a period. In Game 1, the Devils held a 3-0 lead in the opening period.
In each of the first five games, one of the two teams has had a 3-0 lead at one point. The Panthers figure if the Devils continue that trend in Game 6, they're in big trouble.
“The tempo has usually been set from the start of the game. I expect nothing less from a team in desperation mode down one,'' Dineen said. “Two clubs will be colliding very early in the game. We all have the thoughts in our head that we want this thing over; they want to keep going.
“One area we've prided ourselves on this season is our road play. We need to go in there and make a statement early. There will be no sitting on anything. I think both teams will leave it all out there.''
The Panthers split the first two games of the series in New Jersey so they know they can win at the Prudential Center.
Truth is, the Panthers didn't always play their best hockey in last week's games held in Newark. In some parts, far from it.
The Devils jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first six-plus minutes of Game 3 only to watch the Panthers storm back and take a 4-3 lead in the second. Florida hung on for that win. On Thursday, New Jersey took a 1-0 lead into the third before getting three in the final period and rolling to a 4-0 win.
Coach Pete DeBoer isn't too frantic about going back to Newark – where the Devils are just 4-8 in postseason games since moving over from the Meadowlands.
“I think our group is mentally tough,'' DeBoer said on a conference call on Sunday. “I expect we’ll be very good. .-.-. Pressure comes with the playoffs. I don’t think you have to say anything about it. I think the guys understand the situation they’re in. They can count. We’ve got to win.”
The Devils know their backs are against the wall. But they also know they can beat the Panthers.
Florida has a little wiggle room remaining in the series. The Devils are down to their last out.
“We’re not done yet. We can win two in a row,” Ilya Kovalchuk told reporters. “We did it a lot of times this year.”
The Panthers, however, are the only team in this series to win two straight games (two and three). Can they do it again and move on to the NHL's Elite Eight for the first time since 1996?
“We know what to expect from them, but we just need to worry about ourselves,'' Stephen Weiss said. “We have to get our starts under control in their building. We do that, we'll be fine.''
TUESDAY'S GAME 6: PANTHERS AT DEVILS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network/WQAM-560
The series: Florida leads 3-2 (Panthers won season series 2-1-1)
Up next: Game 7, if necessary, Thursday at BankAtlantic Center (time, TV TBA)
Florida Panthers Notebook: Brian Campbell a Lady Byng Finalist ... Samuelsson, Sturm Still Going as Canucks Pack Up ... Garrison Going to [Harrison] New Jersey
No defenseman has won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy – which honors the NHL players for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play – since the 1950s.
Brian Campbell is hoping to buck that trend.
Campbell was announced as one of three finalists for the award which is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association on Monday.
Campbell is considered a strong candidate to become the first defenseman – and only the third ever – since Red Kelly in 1954 to win.
Matt Moulson of the Islanders and Edmonton's Jordan Eberle are the other finalists.
The winner will be announced on June 20 at the NHL awards show held in Las Vegas.
“It's obviously a great honor. Not many defensemen get it and I don't know why,'' Campbell said before the Panthers flew to Newark, N.J., for Game 6 of their best-of-seven series against the Devils.
“You look at some of the things going on in the playoffs. This game can be played hard and played the right way. It's good to see guys play hard and it's starting to clear up in the playoffs.''
Campbell averaged 26:53 per game this season and was one of three (Mike Weaver, Tomas Fleischmann) to appear in all 82 regular season games for the Panthers this season.
Of the 2,354 shifts Campbell skated in during the regular season, he was flagged just three times. Once for delay of game when he shot the puck into the stands.
“I took one dumb one and that's the one I remember,'' he said.
Of the top 30 defensemen in the league per time on ice, only Campbell logged fewer than 20 penalty minutes.
“He had a fabulous year,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “It's nice to be recognized as one of the elites in the league no matter the category. I don't know if that's the last announcement we hear about Brian Campbell.
"He was such a go-to gut for us. He plays the game with skill and character and a lot of heart. That adds up to someone very worthy of the Lady Byng.''
--Six months ago Sunday, the Panthers traded David Booth to Vancouver in exchange for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm.
On Sunday night, the Canucks – this year's President Trophy winner and the reigning Western Conference champions – were knocked out of the playoffs as eighth-seeded Los Angeles won the series 4-1.
Who would have thought Samuelsson and Sturm would be playing longer than Booth and the rest of the 'Florida' Canucks?
“They were the No. 1 team in the league but it is so close these days,'' Samuelsson said. “It doesn't matter if you are the top seed or the eighth, anyone can beat anyone. That's not the only example but it's a perfect example.
"You thought the Senators would have a chance against the Rangers? It's great competition.''
--Defenseman Jason Garrison missed Monday's practice but Dineen said he would be on the trip to New Jersey and could skate – and possibly play – on Tuesday.
Garrison has missed the past two games with a lower body injury.
Keaton Ellerby, who was knocked out of Game 4, returned to practice.
Due to pressure from the NHL, the Panthers will no longer sell rubber rats at gift shops inside the BankAtlantic Center.
The issue isn't the few rats that have hit the ice after Florida goals but ones being thrown during play.
In the final minute of Florida's 3-0 win on Saturday a few rubber rodents hit the ice during a face off and again during a rush down the ice.
The Panthers – as the home team – can be hit with a delay of game penalty for the rats leading many to speculate it was fans of the Devils tossing the rats during play to give their team an advantage.
Coach Kevin Dineen says game officials have not talked to the team about the possibility of a penalty.
"I think a lot of Devils fans have been buying them up,'' he said. "They're trying to get us that penalty. It's unfortunate. It's a part of our identity and something our fans throughly enjoy.
"We don't want to put the team or the league into a situation where they have to make a decision that could affect the actual outcome of the game. We love the enthusiasm. It just has to be directed in the right way.''
Team president Michael Yormark tweeted Tuesday that anyone tossing rats during a home game will be ejected.
“During the play, it has to stop,'' Stephen Weiss said. “At the same time, it could be New Jersey fans doing it.
"[After goals] it takes two seconds to clean up. I like it. It's a tradition here and we haven't had it in about 10 years. You want to do it after the game, by all means go ahead. But we have to keep them off the ice during play.
"When you get close to 20,000 people in the arena, it's going to happen. Either you have to take them completely out of the arena and that's the only way you can totally stop it. We like it.''
Said Dineen: “Mr. Bettman may have made a phone call in the past day or two about ways we can make sure the flow of play continues until the final whistle.
"Probably the first step was stopping the selling of rats in our building.''
Florida Panthers Game 5 Notebook: Hello Tyson Strachan ... Welcome Back Uncle Theo ... TV, Start Time Undecided for Game 6
In the matter of minutes, Tyson Strachan went from one playoff team to another.
With the Panthers losing defensemen Jason Garrison and Keaton Ellerby to injury on Thursday, Strachan was Florida's first choice as a replacement. Strachan was told to get ready for come to South Florida soon after his San Antonio Rampage won the opener of its AHL playoff round.
“Sure there are mixed emotions,'' said Strachan, who had a few complications in flying to Fort Lauderdale on Friday but made his NHL postseason debut on Saturday.
“I want [the Rampage] to win but at the same time, it's hard to pass up being in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'm just excited to be here and want to help if I can.''
Strachan had more than a cup of coffee with the Panthers this season, filling in quite well when the Panthers were without Ed Jovanovski and Dmitry Kulikov because of injuries from Jan. 24-March 9.
In 15 games, Strachan had a goal and two assists.
It's very possible Strachan replaces Garrison in more than just Saturday's game. Garrison, who has an undisclosed lower body injury, is a free agent after this season and may not be back. Strachan signed a two-way contract before this season started but was given a one-way deal for next season in February.
That means he's more than likely to be one of Florida's defensemen when the 2012-13 season starts.
Without Garrison, Florida has five defensemen under contract for next season – seven if you count restricted free agents Kulikov and Ellerby.
“This is why you have organizational depth,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “Tyson comes up and he’s played some really strong stretches of hockey. He can go in and certainly do the job for us. He signed a new contract and the organization has faith in him. I think that was very deserving.''
Dineen was asked if Ellerby's lower body injury – he was rammed hard into the boards on the New Jersey bench and got trapped between the open door – was a long-term deal. “No, I wouldn't say that,'' Dineen said. “He is out [Saturday] though.''
Garrison was said to be an option for Saturday's game. After missing the morning skate, Garrison missed warm-ups and the game as well. Strachan was paired with Ed Jovanovski.
“We’ll see where he’s at. He’s questionable,'' Dineen said of Garrison. “We’re cautious and we’ll see where we end up.”
Jose Theodore was back in net for the Panthers after being pulled in the first period of Tuesday's third game. Scott Clemmensen came on and made 19 saves as Florida rallied for a 4-3 win. Clemmensen started Game 4 and gave up four goals.
“We’re beyond worrying about our goalie’s state of mind,’’ Dineen said. “They understand the situation. We expect them to go out and do the job like they have their whole careers. We have two goalies who have seen so many scenarios over their career they react and are ready to respond as needed.’’
() Aside from adding Theodore and Strachan, the lineup remained the same from Thursday. Florida scratched Krys Barch, Mike Santorelli and Wotjek Wolski.
() Saturday's opening period was as even as it could get. With the series tied at two games each, neither team scored and both took 11 shots on goal.
() The start time for Tuesday's Game 6 in Newark, N.J., has not been determined nor has whether it will be televised by local carrier Fox Sports Florida or Sun Sports. Fox has a Marlins game scheduled for that time slot and Sun has the Heat-Celtics.
NBC Sports Network or CNBC will carry the game nationally and it will be available in the South Florida market if Florida's rightsholder decides against carrying it by opening an alternate channel.
With his team gathered around him on the ice after the morning skate, Ed Jovanovski had a few simple words of wisdom.
“Enjoy the moment,'' he recalled saying.
The Panthers – and their long-suffering fans – did just that on Saturday night.
Florida was most definitely the aggressor as it wrested control of the best-of-seven series against New Jersey with a 3-0 victory at BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers are a victory away from an improbable berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals with Game 6 coming Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
“It's all about hard work. That's what pays off right now,'' said Shawn Matthias, whose strong puck play in the third led to Florida's second goal. “We wanted the puck and we kept coming. We didn't let them come at us. We went to them.''
The Panthers skated to a scoreless tie in the opening period but thanks to five power play chances in the second – one was for four minutes – was able to control the flow of the game in the second.
Florida put 32 shots up against Martin Broduer, finally beating him when Kris Versteeg whipped a shot from the left circle at the four minute mark of the second on the Panthers' first power play chance of the night.
The Panthers were shutout by Broduer in Game 4 and hadn't scored against the Devils since Brian Campbell's game-winner in the second period of Game 3. Florida had gone 1 hour 57 minutes 26 seconds between goals.
“I don't blow smoke, but that is a hard team to play against,'' said coach Kevin Dineen.
As good as Broduer was on Saturday, Florida's Jose Theodore played the match game. Theodore, who watched most of Tuesday's win and all of Thursday's loss from the bench, was outstanding and made 30 saves of his own to record his second postseason shutout.
“We played a full 60 minute game. It was fun seeing everyone stay the course and play our system,'' Theodore said. “They had a couple chances in front of me and then we went and scored some goals. .-.-. I thought we came out strong and focused. Some of the games we had some letdowns, but we can learn from this and keep it going.''
Theodore was definitely tested in the third period when Erik Gudbranson was called for a roughing penalty with 2:08 remaining and the Panthers holding a 2-0 lead. The Devils pulled Brodeur and went with six skaters to Florida's four, yet Theodore held strong and gave Tomas Kopecky a chance for the insurance empty net goal with 34 ticks left.
Kopecky's shot never made it into the empty net as he was mauled by Ilya Kovalchuk on the breakaway to the net as the officials awarded the short-handed goal by rule.
“We worked our butts off to get the lead and to build on it,'' Versteeg said. “It was exciting, a lot of fun. But we have a lot in front of us. You remember what the crowd did for us.''
Dineen and Florida's playoff veterans had been preaching that the Panthers need to sacrifice and lay things all on the line in the playoffs. Even though it sounds cliché, that's exactly what the Panthers did on Saturday.
Whether it was Gudbranson diving to clear a puck sans stick or Matthias fighting his way past Jersey defenders Marek Zidlicky and Kovalchuk for a loose puck near the blueline, the Panthers left the arena knowing they left whatever they had on the ice.
Matthias' hard-fought puck battle ended up on Versteeg's stick as he worked behind the goal. Versteeg then spotted Scottie Upshall flashing in and fed him a sweet pass as Upshall banged the puck into a net Brodeur was out of as he was trying to get it himself.
“Those are the little things that win you games at this time of the season,'' Brian Campbell said. “Everyone has to do that in the playoffs. You have to pay the price to win right now.''
Said Dineen: “We had some [battles]; that's the kind of video you can sit on and say 'that was the difference in the game'.''
() The Panthers are really struggling to control the practice of rubber rats being thrown onto the ice after goals – and during play.
The team figures Devils fans are to blame for the rodents being tossed onto the ice in the final minutes as the officials could call a delay penalty on the home team.
“It was so nice playing here in front of our home fans. It was electric,'' Dineen said. “I am a little concerned about the rats. I know there are a lot of Devils fans throwing them out there.''
() The announced sellout crowd of 19,513 was the largest to see a Panthers playoff game in franchise history.
The Lightning hold the NHL record for biggest postseason crowd as it drew 28,183 to the Thunderdome (now Tropicana Field) on April 23, 1996 for an opening-round game against the Flyers.
Florida Panthers Notebook: Clemmensen Starts ... Jason Garrison a Late Scratch; Keaton Ellerby Hurt in Replacement Role ... Tickets Going Fast for Game 5
NEWARK, N.J. – Scott Clemmensen spent seven years with the Devils organization, yet with Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in front of him, he never got to start a playoff game in New Jersey.
That all changed on Thursday as Clemmensen was in net – against his old mentor – when the Panthers took on the Devils in Game 4 of their best-of-7 opening round series.
"I'll be ready,'' Clemmensen said before the game. “I'm 34-year-old and getting my first start in the playoffs. I've felt very much a part of this team all year long. I've played pretty much regularly all year long.
“As I've said, I expected to play some and contribute regardless if it was getting thrown into a game or starting a game. For me it's just about going out there and playing my game. It's the playoffs and things are going to get amped up a little bit.''
Clemmensen took over for starter Jose Theodore on Tuesday after Florida's starter gave up three goals on six shots.
Although coach Kevin Dineen said he didn't blame Theodore for the goals, Clemmensen's strong play – as well as some sloppy penalties by the Devils – helped keep the Panthers in the game. Florida rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 and take a 2-1 lead in the series.
It's obvious Clemmensen earned his start.
"I think both teams have learned in this series that momentum swings can be dramatic,'' said Clemmensen, who gave up five goals in his five games heading into Thursday. “If you have a three-goal lead or you're down by three goals you have to keep playing. I think both teams realize the importance of that. We happened to come out on top in two of the three games but it's still anyone's series."
-- Defenseman Jason Garrison was a late healthy scratch with what Dineen said was "two" lower body problems. Garrison is said to be day-to-day.
Garrison took part in the morning skate with Keaton Ellerby – in the lineup for the first time since March 15 – was sent out for extra practice time with the rest of the healthy scratches.
Ellerby wasn't told until just before the game that he would be playing.
Ellerby left the game in the second period when he was rammed into the Devils bench where the open door met the stanchion. Ellerby looked to be in severe pain and has a lower body injury.
Tomas Fleischmann missed the morning skate but was back on the top line Tuesday night.
Wojtek Wolski filled in for Fleischmann but was a healthy scratch for the second straight night. Mike Santorelli and Krys Barch were the other players held out.
() Dineen criticized the soupy ice after Tuesday's morning skate and said even though it was better later that night – it really couldn't have been worse – it wasn't the best of conditions saying players from both sides were tripping and falling.
The ice was much improved on Thursday as it was much cooler Wednesday and Thursday; the area had a couple of days earlier in the week in which the temperature came close to 90.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer had nothing bad to say about the ice at BankAtlantic Center when asked Tuesday saying he was still friends with the guys who make the ice there.
“I felt bad about [my comments] the other day but that's one of those situations where you get caught off guard," Dineen said. "There are always people who work hard behind the scenes. "We're used to 80-degree weather in Florida. A couple days ago it was 80 degrees here, so I think there was some management there.
“The joke [in South Florida] is girls love coming to our games because that's when they get to wear their sweaters. It's so chilly in that rink. .-.-. I'm sure it will be tinkered with. A quality place like this wants to put on the best product. It's a fabulous building."
() The Panthers announced they have sold out single game tickets for the lower bowl and club level seating for Game 5 on Saturday.
Only a limited amount remain for those who purchase season tickets for the 2012-13 season. The Panthers also said they are close to selling out upper deck tickets as well.
SATURDAY'S GAME: Devils at Panthers, BankAtlantic Center, 6:30 p.m. (FS Florida)
Florida Panthers Headed Back to the Sunshine State Even with Devils after 4-0 Loss ... Martin Brodeur Sets Postseason Record with 24th Shutout
NEWARK, N.J. – Panthers fans coming into the Prudential Center for Thursday's game carrying rubber rats had them confiscated by arena security.
They wouldn't need them anyway.
The Devils broke open a close game by erupting for three goals on four shots early in the final period to rout the Panthers 4-0.
New Jersey's win tied the best-of-7 series at two each and assured a return trip to Newark for Florida next week. Game 5 is Saturday at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise with Game 6 scheduled for Tuesday.
The Panthers are now in a best-of-3 series with two games at home.
“It would have been nice to get a couple goals early, but we're going home with two of three at home. We're in good shape,'' Stephen Weiss said. “That's a good club and they were desperate.''
Martin Broduer, who was pulled when Florida came back with three straight goals on Tuesday, was as sharp as ever and stopped all 26 shots to earn his 24th postseason shutout. Broduer now holds the NHL record for postseason shutouts, passing Montreal/Colorado great Patrick Roy.
“We knew they would be a very hungry team and they proved that,'' said Scott Clemmensen, who gave up four goals on 27 shots in his first postseason start. “You knew Marty would have a bounce-back game. There would be no easy goals. They needed to be desperate and they were. They didn't want to go down 3-1. It's anyone's series. It's been a tight series.''
Before the game, coach Kevin Dineen “guaranteed” that if his team fell behind 3-0 again – it had happened twice before in the series – they would not recover. Right he was. Florida gave up its first goal in the second period before the Devils took their third 3-0 lead of the series in the third period.
Soon afterward, New Jersey made it 4-0 and the Panthers were done.
One team has held a 3-0 lead in each game of the series; New Jersey did it in Games 1, 3 and 4; the Panthers were up 3-0 in Game 2, holding on for a 4-2 win.
Florida's power play came into the night as hot as it could be with the Panthers going 3-for-3 with the advantage in Tuesday's victory. The Panthers power play looked very good at times on Thursday yet Florida couldn't put anything past the 39-year-old Brodeur.
The Panthers went 0-for-6 with the extra skater on Thursday and are now 6-for-16 in the four games this series.
Florida had a great scoring chance on the power play in the first when an Ed Jovanovski shot hit Sean Bergenheim in front of the net. His shot went wide and was loose, only no Florida player was there to knock it through.
“We had lots of chances out there,'' Dineen said. “In all honesty we weren't very accurate. I think we wanted to create off rebounds instead of trying to score off the shot. That's not a good recipe for us against a goalie like that.''
After going through the first scoreless opening period of the series, the Panthers finally surrendered a goal when Keaton Ellerby – filling in for an injured Jason Garrison – went to the box for high-sticking 4:38 into the second. With 30 seconds left in the power play, Marek Zidlicky's long shot clipped both Travis Zajac and Zach Parise past Clemmensen.
The score stayed 1-0 going into the third, but it wouldn't stay that was for long. New Jersey made it 2-0 when Steve Bernier – who spent a forgettable season in Sunrise last year – one-timed a loose puck off the skate of teammate Stephen Gionta and past Clemmensen.
The Devils made it 3-0 on Zajac's long shot from the slot 90 seconds later than closed things out when Ilya Kovalchuk zipped one from the left side with 11:28 remaining.
“It got away from us in the third and that really started in the second,'' Dineen said. “We didn't seem to have the desperation they did. It was a one-goal game so it's a doable game especially the way we've played this year. But we were out of sorts in the third and couldn't get our offensive game going. We were on the receiving end and didn't have many answers.''
The physical nature of the game intensified in the final few minutes of the game. Although it was nothing compared to the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series, there were some shots coming from both sides.
With 4:09 left, Florida's Jerred Smithson went to the box for hitting Alexei Ponikarovsky in the back after he put a stick into Brian Campbell's face. Later, both Marco Sturm and Bernier got into it. David Clarkson left the game with 21 seconds left on a game misconduct.
“We respect those guys and they respect us,'' Kopecky said. “But we're both going to do whatever it takes to win. You have to keep your composure for the whole 60 minutes.''
Florida holds a 2-1 advantage in the series.
Both Clemmensen and coach Kevin Dineen said all the right things today regarding the start -- well Dineen didn't confirm it -- as Clemmensen has been outstanding of late.
Not only did Clemmensen stop all 19 shots faced against the Devils on Tuesday in relief of Jose Theodore, but he's given up just five goals in his past five games.
"I believe I'm playing my best hockey right now," he said.
"I like these fans,'' he said. "They're a lot of fun. I don't care how loud they boo me, I love them."
Pete DeBoer is going back with Martin Brodeur as expected. Clemmensen said Brodeur will be fine despite being pulled from Tuesday's game.
"I knew as soon as I pulled him,'' DeBoer said, "I'd be going back to him."
--Tomas Fleischmann didn't partake in the morning skate. Wotjek Wolski replaced him on the top line for the practice.
Only Fleischmann will be back in the lineup tonight.
Wolski, as was the case Tuesday, will be a healthy scratch. So, too, will be Mike Santorelli, Krys Barch and Keaton Ellerby.
--The ice at the morning skate was fine and Dineen all but apologized for ripping the poor ice conditions at Tuesday's skate.
Dineen admitted the Jersey rink isn't used to consecutive days of 80-plus degrees like his arena is and the place was probably just too warm.
It's a beautiful day today, but it's in the 60s -- as it was yesterday.
The ice shouldn't be a factor tonight.
--Dineen made one prediction:
"Here's one guarantee: If we spot them three, we're not going to be able to come back tonight," Dineen said.
"You don't get away with that time after time. We're going to have to play a more consistent brand of hockey. We're not going to steal anything out of this building. We're going to have to earn everything we get."
Florida Panthers Ready to Move Forward, Ahead in Series v Jersey Devils ... Clemmensen/Theodore Debate a Hot Topic ... Weaver a Hero
NEWARK, N.J. – Kevin Dineen had a pretty novel approach when asked where his team's focus would be now that it was up a game in its opening round playoff series.
“You can take whatever comments you got from [Devils coach] Pete DeBoer and put my name on them,'' he said, referring to the Devils holding an initial lead in the series.
“They got the first one and wanted the second. That's what we want to do. I just want to get through the first three minutes of the game before I worry about the outcome of the game.''
The Panthers rousing 4-3 win on Tuesday – Florida's first road playoff win since 1996 – has brought much excitement, but really, the Panthers haven't won anything yet.
“That's something to take pride in, we're putting some notches in our belts,'' Dineen said. “But these are baby steps, lets not kid ourselves.''
The Panthers play Game 4 against the host Devils on Thursday at 7 p.m. (FS Florida). A win and Florida comes home with a commanding lead in the series.
It's a tremendous opportunity for the Panthers to take control of things with a home date on Saturday.
“This is huge. Getting the first one on the road really sets us up for Thursday,'' center Stephen Weiss said Wednesday afternoon. “We have to park Tuesday's win and forget about it. You can't forget how good that hockey club is. We were lucky to get that one after the start we had. We're moving on and want to come home with the lead.''
The Panthers know they need to be better not only at the start of the game but at the start of the periods as well. Dineen said Wednesday that the only thing he's really focused on right now is the opening five minutes of the game.
It's a real concern. In Friday's series opener, the Devils led 3-0 before the opening period had ended. On Tuesday, New Jersey's 3-0 lead came just over six minutes into the game.
Although all three games have seen a team go up 3-0 (Florida went into the third period in Sunday's Game 2 leading by that score), both teams know they need to tighten things up.
“Being down 3-0 twice is pretty irresponsible and it's not acceptable,'' Dineen said. “This is sports and we're big boys. We know we have to man up and be better in certain situations. The response factor has been good for the most part. It's a balancing act.''
Dineen, as usual, wouldn't tip his hand when it comes to whether Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen will start Thursday. Both Theodore and Jersey starter Martin Brodeur were replaced during Tuesday's game; Broduer will be back against the Panthers. It's likely that Clemmensen, who stopped all 19 shots faced, will go against his former mentor.
“For two months, Clemmensen has been an excellent goaltender perhaps one of the best in the league,'' Dineen said.
“What he does have is a tremendous amount of respect from his coaching staff and his teammates. You can tell from people here in Jersey that he's a hard guy to dislike. That fits his character. I have a tough decision to make. Whichever one I make I feel will be the right one.''
Clemmensen spent seven seasons with the Devils organization and knows it's a great story line if he plays against New Jersey. He says his focus is solely on the hockey.
“If it's me, I'll be ready to play,'' Clemmensen said. “It's an exciting time, it's the playoffs and it's my former team so there's some intrigue there. But it doesn't matter who we're playing. The playoffs are so much fun to be a part of.''
Dineen is confident Clemmensen will play hard for the Panthers when given the call as he has rarely let the team down this season.
“He never gets anything easy,'' Dineen said. “I think that's why he's had success. He's not flashy or hanging on Broadway. He goes out and earns his paycheck. He's a heck of a teammate.''
() The Panthers took Wednesday off and had a light workout near their hotel in Jersey City. The Panthers had ice reserved at the Devils' training facility at Prudential Center but didn't use it.
() Defenseman Mike Weaver was awarded the Panthers 'championship belt' after scoring the game-tying goal against the Devils on Tuesday.
The belt has been given to the player his peers' feel is most deserving of helping the team win. Weaver hadn't scored a goal this season before whipping a shot past Brodeur in the second period.
“He's not known for a cannonading drive,'' Dineen said. “That curved stick of his is made for defending. But you put pucks on net and good things happen. That was a great goal for us.''
() When told he was sitting in the same locker stall LeBron James used on Monday night when the Heat visited the Nets at Prudential Center, Theodore smiled. “We're tight like that,'' he said.
THURSDAY'S GAME 4: PANTHERS AT DEVILS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
TV/Radio: FS Florida/WQAM-560
The series: Florida leads best-of-7 series 2-1 (Panthers won season series 2-1-1)
Up next: Game 5 on Saturday; BankAtlantic Center, 7 p.m.
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Panthers may not have many traditions as a franchise, but the one they do is pretty cool.
Why is the tossing of rubber rats so well received?
It's unique for one. And it wasn't some marketing scheme that caught on. One fan started it, it caught on and now it's part of the franchise's legacy.
You have an Octopus, we have a rat.
And here's how it all began:
Published: Monday, October 9, 1995; The Miami Herald
BY DAVE SHEININ
Herald Sports Writer
You only saw two of them.
The first one took place in the locker room before the game. The Panthers were dressing for the game when a big, ugly rat came scampering among the equipment bags.
Not missing a beat, Mellanby grabbed a stick and one-timed the poor creature against the wall. End of rat.
"He looked like Seve Ballesteros," said Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, describing Mellanby's rat-smacking form.
Mellanby, of course, went on to score two slightly more conventional goals in the first period of Sunday night's game. He had a few more chances during the rest of the game, but couldn't convert another.
And so Mellanby still has never scored a hat trick in his 10-year career, and the Panthers have never had one in their history.
"Yeah," joked Vanbiesbrouck, "but he scored a rat trick."
Mellanby's two goals were almost picture-perfect twins. Both came in the first period. Both answered Calgary goals and tied the score. Both came on power plays. And both were on deflections.
The first came on a blast by Magnus Svensson from the left point, the second on a shot by Jason Woolley from just inside the blue line.
The Panthers' point men have taken the coaching staff's advice and are firing away from the point on power plays to make things happen.
Eleven times in club history, a Panthers player had scored two goals in a game. And 11 times, they failed to get the hat trick.
But when Mellanby scored his second -- with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the first period -- he admits the thought crossed his mind.
"When you score two in the first period like that, you think about it," Mellanby said. "I've never had one in my career, unfortunately."
And he had his chances. On another power play in the second period, he took a feed from Murphy in the slot and found himself open, but he didn't get off a good shot. On the same power play, he took another feed from Rob Niedermayer outside the crease, but missed the empty side of the net.
"I should have buried that one," Mellanby said. "I guess that shows it wasn't meant to be."
By converting two of his three shots-on-goal, Mellanby seems to have put his scoring jinx of 1994 behind him. Last year, he led the team in shots but was just third in scoring. He converted only 10 percent of his shots. At times, he got frustrated.
This year was almost guaranteed to be different. MacLean put him on a line with the rejuvenated Niedermayer and the talented rookie Radek Dvorak.
That line got shut out Sunday night, but Mellanby made up for it with his power play goals.
NEWARK, N.J. – A day before the Panthers first playoff series in over a decade began, Stephen Weiss swore his team wasn't just happy to be in the postseason.
The Panthers, Weiss said, were coming to create a little havok.
Tuesday night they did just that. The Panthers shocked the host Devils by roaring back from an early three-goal deficit to win 4-3 and take a 2-1 lead in a best-of-7 series that continues Thursday at Prudential Center.
Florida trailed 3-0 just six-plus minutes into the game but scored twice in the final four minutes of the period to take momentum into the locker room. Florida also trailed New Jersey 3-0 in Friday's series opener but fell a goal short of evening it up.
“That was a big goal,'' coach Kevin Dineen said of Jason Garrison's goal with 7.4 seconds left in the opening period which made it a 3-2 game.
“We were getting overwhelmed, getting outplayed. All of a sudden, we're walking in and we're down one on the road. That happens all the time. It was very easy to settle them down after that.''
The Panthers quieted a roucous sellout crowd, one that came to see their Devils take command of a series many hockey experts predicted would end quick.
Florida, after all, won just two of its final 10 games. The Devils rolled into the playoffs with six straight wins. None of that matters now.
“This is a great group of guys and their character is impecable,'' said GM Dale Tallon, whose team hadn't won a road playoff game since Game 7 of the 1996 Eastern Conference championship in Pittsburgh.
“They keep battling and never quit. That's been the story all year. I am so proud of these guys.''
Dineen has another goalie controversy going as Scott Clemmensen stopped all 19 shots he faced after replacing Jose Theodore after New Jersey scored those three quick goals. Clemmensen, now 5-0 against his former team, slammed the door on the Devils allowing the Panthers to make a big comeback.
Florida has only won three games in its history when trailing 3-0. Two came this season and both against the Devils.
“I thought things changed after we got the first goal,'' said Clemmensen, who got his first postseason win. “Our second goal at the end of the period was big obviously.''
Dineen and the Panthers were in big trouble early as Zach Parise started the scoring 33 seconds in before Stephen Gionta
Theodore came out and Patrik Elias scored minutes later to make it 3-0. Theodore came out and Clemmensen came into a playoff game for the first time since he replaced Martin Brodeur during Game 1 of the 2006 semifinals when the Devils were routed 6-0 by Carolina.
Clemmensen held off the Devils and Sean Bergenheim charged in on Broduer for a power play goal at 16:11 of the first.
Then came Garrison's big bomb of a slap shot to give the Panthers true hope this game was winnable.
Florida came out charging in the second and got the game-tying goal from an unexpected place as Mike Weaver – who hadn't scored in 82 regular season games nor two postseason ones – made it a 3-3 game with a slick slap shot after pulling in a puck the Devils failed to clear.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer, trying to change his team's fate, did the unthinkable and put Brodeur on the bench during a playoff game. Clemmensen was the last goalie to replace Brodeur in a playoff game; former Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg got the honors on Tuesday.
“This showed the character of our team,'' Weaver said. “We just can't keep on falling down big, however. We're going to enjoy this though, feel positive. But [Wednesday] we have to forget. You can't get to high. We're going to stay the course.''
The Panthers took their first and final lead of the night not long after with Brian Campbell whipping a shot past Hedberg 6:34 into the second. Florida's power play has been terrific this postseason as Campbell's goal made the Panthers 3-for-3 on the advantage on Tuesday as they have scored six of their nine goals in the series on the power play.
The Devils looked to tie it late in the second but Marek Zidlicky's goal was disallowed as Steve Bernier rolled into Clemmensen. No penalty was called, yet a few beer bottles flew from the crowd toward the officials.
“That's a good call, the goalie has to be able to move in the crease,'' Dineen said.
() Theodore said after Tuesday's game that Dineen replacing him 6:16 into Tuesday's game was “a good momentum change.''
Theodore said you have to have a short memory and praised the play of Clemmensen.
“I'm going to see if I could do anything different,'' Theodore said. “I think they just came out hard and got clean goals. It's tough to leave 3-0. You just hope the team makes a comeback. To come back and win was huge.''
Said Dineen: “I have tremendous respect for Jose and it was extremely hard to pull him out. There are some interesting decisions to make in both coaches' rooms in the coming days. .-.-. I'm comfortable going either way.''
NEWARK, N.J. – The Miami Heat played its 97th and final game against the New Jersey Nets on Monday.
Although the Nets are celebrating their 35th season in the Garden State, there will not be a 36th. When the Nets visit Toronto for their season finale on April 26, it will mark the final game before the franchise moves to New York and re-brands itself the Brooklyn Nets.
For a franchise that has struggled on the court the past few years, the move couldn't come soon enough.
The Nets final game in New Jersey is April 23 against the 76ers. One week later, the name change becomes official complete with a new logo and colors.
“This is a transformative move, something we've waited seven years for,'' said Nets CEO Brett Yormark, the twin brother of Panthers president Michael.
“Newark has been great to us and the Prudential Center has been terrific. But there's no comparing this to Brooklyn. If it wasn't a borough, it would be the fourth largest city in the U.S. It's a great place for us moving forward.''
The Nets escaped the aging Izod Center at the Meadowlands two years ago and temporarily moved to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark waiting for the new building. The Nets soon will go from being a renter at an arena which is most definitely not theirs – it's impossible to sit in the arena and not know the New Jersey Devils are the primary tenant – by moving into a spectacular building in a thriving, hip neighborhood.
The $1 billion Barclays Center is currently rising above the Long Island rail yard near where Walter O'Malley wanted to build his Dodgers a stadium. That didn't happen -- O'Malley was denied the land and offered Queens instead -- and the Nets become the first major professional sports team to call Brooklyn home since the Dodgers left Ebbets Field for Los Angeles after the 1957 season.
“We have a built-in fanbase. People have been waiting since 1957 for this,'' Yormark said. “There's a nostalgia factor. We're excited. It's going to be a destination in the region and we can't wait to call it home. .-.-. We have been here 35 years and need to leave New Jersey the right way. I think we're doing that, giving back as much as we can. But the next chapter starts next season.''
With deep-pocket owners Mikhail Prokhorov, Bruce Ratner and entertainer Jay-Z (who opens the new building with a concert Sept. 28), the Nets hope to create a new excitement upon moving into their new palace. Brooklyn, they hope, becomes a destination point for NBA players.
Because even the Nets know a new look and a fancy new arena won't cure all their ills. But it's a pretty good start.
“It's something we're all looking forward to,'' coach Avery Johnson said. “As much as we talk about the building – and the Barclays Center is going to be a state-of-the-art building and a great place to play – we're going to have to put a really good team on the floor.''
Even though the Nets are celebrating their time in New Jersey, some of the team's biggest success (the Nets did play in the 2002 and '03 NBA Finals) came while playing on Long Island as the New York Nets back in the ABA days.
Last Friday, the NBA's Board of Governors officially paved the way back to New York by unanimously approving the move.
It will be strange not calling them the New Jersey Nets anymore.
“This will be an exciting opportunity for the entire organization,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose father Jon worked as an executive with the Nets in the 1990s.
“Players are looking forward to it. The opposing teams will look forward to it as well.''
Florida Panthers Notebook: Sean Bergenheim DIGS the Playoffs ... San Antonio Rampage In AHL Playoffs ... Weiss' Goal Came Really Quick
With the Panthers down 3-0 in the second in Game 1 against the Devils, Sean Bergenheim brought BankAtlantic Center to life -- and gave fans reason to believe in a comeback -- when his shot found the back of the net 7:33 into the period.
For the 28-year forward, it marked a continuation of where he left off during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
Until last April, Bergenheim -- drafted 22nd overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Islanders -- hadn’t come near the sport’s postseason.
In his three full seasons with New York, he and the team finished last in the Atlantic Division. During the 2010 offseason, Bergenheim signed a one-year contract with the Lightning. He would play in a career-high 80 regular-season games while scoring 14 goals and adding 15 assists.
But it was during his long-awaited introduction to the playoffs that Bergenheim experienced his breakthrough.
He scored nine goals and recorded two assists in 16 games as Tampa Bay upset both the Penguins and Capitals.
It was the fourth-most goals scored that postseason by any player. Boston’s David Krejci, who tallied 12, notched that number in 25 games.
Thanks to Friday’s goal and Sunday’s assist, Bergenheim now has 13 points in 18 playoff games. When facing New Jersey in 27 regular-season games, he has 15 points in 27 regular-season games. which is the most against any team.
“I think last year he made a statement for himself and he carried that right into this series,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
“He went through some injury problems early in the season, and we weren’t sure how that was going to play out.”
Over the offseason, Bergenheim signed a four-year deal with Florida as one of general manager Dale Tallon’s additions in a roster overhaul. Bergenheim netted a career-high 17 goals and six assists in 62 games.
His numbers might’ve been higher had he not been sidelined twice by injuries. In late December, Bergenheim missed 12 games with a groin strain. He also sat out seven others in late October with a lower-body injury.
“Since he’s been back he’s really not only been an offensive positive for us, but he’s also been a really energetic guy,” Dineen said. “He really adds to our lineup with that enthusiasm and physical play. He’s a guy to have around the puck, especially this time of year.”
-- The Panthers’ AHL team -- the San Antonio Rampage -- beat the Oklahoma City Barons 1-0 in the final regular-season game to clinch a Calder Cup playoffs berth for the first time since 2008.
Mark Cullen’s first-period goal from Bill Thomas and Bracken Kearns held up as the gamewinner.
The Rampage earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference with 87 points and will face the Chicago Wolves.
Goalkeeper Jacob Markstrom, who picked up his first shutout of the season, tweeted: “Great feeling to clinch at the last game for the @sarampage and great to get my first s/o in the rampage jersey n great fans Boys R #BUZZIN.”
Sunday’s scratches: Keaton Ellerby, Jack Skille, Mike Santorelli, Krystofer Barch and Jerred Smithson were Florida’s scratches for Game 2 against New Jersey.
History made: Stephen Weiss’ goal at 0:23 in the first set a Panthers franchise playoff record for fastest goal to start a period and game. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the fastest power-play goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs since Montreal’s Mats Naslund 0:18 on April 26, 1987.
Florida Panthers Even Things Up, Hold off Devils 4-2 ... First Postseason Win for Panthers since Miami Arena Days of 1997 ... Stephen Weiss Scores Twice
The Panthers have been pretty good at making history the past few days.
Sunday night, eight days after winning the franchise's first division title, Florida won its first postseason game in its 'new' arena by jumping out to a three goal lead before holding on to beat New Jersey 4-2 in the second game of its first-round game of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Of course, as is the Panthers way, it didn't come easy. But yet, as hundreds of rats hit the ice from all reaches of BankAtlantic Center, it finally happened.
“It was worth the wait,'' a gap-toothed Stephen Weiss said. “That was fun.''
The gutsy win evened the best-of-7 series at one game each in front of an announced sellout of 19,248. Game 3 is Tuesday in Newark, N.J.
Florida had been 0-3 in playoff games at the National Car Rental/Office Depot/BankAtlantic Center with all of the losses coming to New Jersey.
The Panthers were swept in four by the Devils in 2000 – their second season removed from the Miami Arena. Florida's last postseason victory came just 5,478 days before (or almost 15 years) when it beat the Rangers 3-0 on March 17, 1997, in Game 1 of that opening-round series. New York won the next four.
“It feels good to win no matter how long it has been for the organization,'' Jovanovski, 35, said. “It's a step in the right direction, where we want to be. We'll enjoy this one as a group for now, then it's on to Game 3.''
In Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Devils, the Panthers looked lost for too much of the first period as New Jersey took a 3-0 lead in the opening period before Florida bounced back. On Sunday it was a completely different story.
The Panthers drew a penalty just 11 seconds into the game when Andy Greene tripped up Marcel Goc as both rolled goalie Martin Brodeur. Weiss cashed in by scoring his first postseason goal – he had played 637 regular season games before making his playoff debut
Friday – 13 seconds into the power play. Weiss' goal came 23 seconds into the game -- the quickest in a playoff game since 1987.
Weiss got his second goal of the game early in the second as the Panthers held a two-man advantage for a whole two minutes with David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky in the box for separate infractions.
Weiss – who had scored two power play goals once in his career and not since 2005 – jumped all over a rebound and beat Brodeur top shelf 1:12 into the period.
“You can't ask for a better start,'' Weiss said. “Things tightened in the third, but they're a good hockey club. We pushed hard but we finished them off. That was important.''
Goc got into the act himself late in the second period, firing a shot from 25 feet out that slipped past Mikael Samuelsson who was screening Brodeur. The puck also went past Brodeur and Florida had a 3-0 lead with 5:21 left, leading some Panthers fans to serenade Brodeur mockingly.
They should have held off on that one as things would soon get messy – and Brodeur turned back into, well, Martin Brodeur.
As usual, the Panthers “took the dirt path,'' as coach Kevin Dineen has said all year to victory. The Devils pounced on the Panthers in the third period, picking up two quick goals, making it a 3-2 game just over two minutes in.
Only the Panthers scratched and clawed and held off the hard-charging Devils as Theodore stopped 10 shots in the third. Florida faced an extra skater as Brodeur was pulled with 1:15 left and had a key faceoff after a Kris Versteeg icing with 7.6 seconds left. Tomas Fleischmann's shot sank into the empty net just as the final horn went off.
“They kept coming but we didn't panic,'' Theodore said. “That's what the playoffs are all about.''
Florida Panthers Hope They Learned Lesson ... New Jersey Devils Lead Series 1-0 with Game 2 on Sunday ... Hey, Aren't You Ryan Carter?
The Panthers seemed to get over whatever jitters they may have had in their first postseason game in 12 years on Friday.
It came at a cost.
Florida watched New Jersey run roughshod in the opening period, with Patrik Elias scoring on the team's 13th shot on goal just 6:31 into the game.
The Devils took 26 shots in the opening period alone as New Jersey went into the first break up 3-0. The Devils won the opener of the best-of-7 series 3-2 with Game 2 on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Net).
With Game 2 coming up so quickly, the Panthers know they can't have a reserved start. For Florida to even the series heading to New Jersey later this week, the Panthers need to play with the same resolve they did in the final two periods on Friday and forget about that brutal first.
“At the end of it, the first period sticks out,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “We answered and pushed back. Over the course of the year, we've lean on the positives. There were things to build on.
"I think we'll be better prepared [Sunday]. You have to give credit to your opponent. They came out gangbusters. That's been their M.O. all year. They come out hard. You can use excuses like jitters and things. But we got outplayed early and have to own up to that.''
One positive that came out of the opening period on Friday was the play of goaltender Jose Theodore. Although he did give up three goals, it wasn't like he had much help out there. The 26 shots Theodore faced were the most in a single period of a postseason game in four years.
If Theodore looked out of breath at some points, well, he was.
“My cardio was pumping and it was hard to catch up at times,'' Theodore said. “You didn't really have time because they kept coming and coming. It's tough physically. But you prepare all year for games like that, the playoffs. Hopefully this is the last time we face 26 shots as a team.''
There was some external debate on whether Dineen was going to start Theodore or backup Scott Clemmensen – although there apparently wasn't much of an internal one as Theodore admitted Saturday that he “knew a pretty long time ago” that he would be starting in Game 1.
And after his performance against the Devils – he stopped 35 shots – he'll be back on Sunday.
“He was fantastic,'' Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “I thought he was great.''
Although the Panthers figured New Jersey would come out humming – the Devils took the initial lead on Florida in three of four regular season meetings – no one saw that kind of attack coming.
“I don't think that's something you plan on,'' Theodore said Saturday morning. “They are a team that come out hard in the first. They were ready to play. We were just trying to battle. With 20 minutes left, it was a one-goal game.
"It was 3-0 after the first, but you don't lose your focus. You keep pushing. Instead of letting down, we played two good periods. We almost came all the way back.''
DeBoer said one of the few bright spots at the end of his final season with the Panthers was the all-out play of Ryan Carter. The Panthers acquired the hard-nosed forward before the trade deadline when they sent Cory Stillman to Carolina.
Carter had two goals and an assist in 12 games with the Panthers and then DeBoer was fired. Carter made the Panthers this summer, but after playing in seven games, was placed on waivers.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello asked DeBoer his opinion on Carter and he had nothing but praise. New Jersey claimed Carter and he played in 65 games and put up eight points. His first period goal on Friday ended up being the game-winner.
“He was one of the bright spots over the last 20 games, was a guy who played until the last game and played the right way,'' DeBoer said. “I thought he was a good fit and Lou agreed. We've used him in a lot of different places. He's done a lot of good things for us.''
Said Carter: “He definitely gave me an opportunity and didn't have to. I appreciate that. It's nice, been rewarding to play in a scenario like this. It's the biggest stage. This is fun.''
--Tomas Fleischmann missed Saturday's practice with what Dineen said was a maintenance day. Fleischmann is expected to be back on the top line on Sunday. Wojtek Wolski filled in for Fleischmann on Saturday.
SUNDAY: DEVILS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network/WQAM-560
The series: New Jersey leads best-of-7 series 1-0 (Florida won season series 2-1-1)
The game: The Panthers played a strong game in the final two periods Friday but couldn't overcome a 3-0
deficit and lost 3-2. Goalie Martin Brodeur was strong against the Panthers (again) as he stopped 24 shots and got the Devils second goal going with a smart pass up ice after Florida cleared the zone on a penalty kill. Patrik Elias has 22 goals against the Panthers in 51 regular season games and scored Friday.
Dan Marino, wearing a custom No. 13 Panthers jersey, dropped the ceremonial opening puck.
Marino came to Sunrise in style, flying in on the helicopter of Panthers' part-owner Mike Maroone.
Marino, it should be noted, retired from the Dolphins on March 13, 2000. On April 13, 2012, he dropped the first puck on the Panthers first playoff game since April 2000.
Florida started its 2000 series against the host Devils on April 13, 2000.
--Despite practicing just twice since leaving Saturday's game early with a lower body injury, Marco Sturm was back in the lineup Friday.
Krys Barch, who had been working with Florida's fourth line, was a healthy scratch for the fifth straight game. Mike Santorelli, Keaton Ellerby and Jerred Smithson were also scratched.
“He has a lot of composure,'' coach Kevin Dineen said Friday morning, noting Sturm's 61 postseason games compared to three for Barch. “He has a skillset that's both offensive and responsible on the defensive side. Like a lot of our players, he's pretty diverse.''
Public address announcer Jay Rokeach pleaded with fans not to return to the tradition set in 1996 as the NHL changed the rules the following season.
Florida could be charged with a two minute bench minor if the game is delayed for fans throwing the rubber rodents onto the ice. Of course, that has yet to happen.
() Fans weren't too pleased with the officiating crew as the Devils had six power play chances to Florida's three. New Jersey had a 5-1 power play advantage in the second period before the Devils picked up a pair of penalties within a two-minute span.
Rats photo courtesy of Miami Herald staff photographer Joe Rimkus Jr. To see his 25-shot gallery from Friday's game, click here.
Florida got off to slow starts in all but one of the four games against the Devils during the regular season, falling behind early on in three.
Why would the playoffs be any different?
Despite coach Kevin Dineen stressing a fast start, the Panthers surrendered three goals in the opening period as the Devils moved up and down the ice with ease. Then came the second. Florida scored twice in the middle frame but the Devils muddied things up in the third and held on for a 3-2 win in front of an announced 19,119 at BankAtlantic Center.
New Jersey now holds a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series; Game 2 is Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Net).
“The next one is the biggest game and it goes from there,'' said goalie Jose Theodore, who faced a Panthers postseason record 26 shots in the opening period. “You definitely don't want to go into their building down 2-0. We settled down in the second and it turned out to be too late. We have to be ready from the start.''
Dineen said he didn't feel his team showed any opening night jitters although it was apparent the Panthers' defensemen – who collectively had the least postseason experience – weren't ready for prime time early on.
The Devils took their first lead 6:31 in when Panthers-killer Patrik Elias dipped and dodged and put his team's 13th shot past Theodore. Later in the period, Shawn Matthias – also making his postseason debut – put an elbow into New Jersey's Andy Greene.
Instead of being called for a two minute minor for elbowing, Greene smacked himself with his own stick drawing blood. The ref only saw the blood and Matthias was given a four-minute penalty for high-sticking.
Florida came close to surviving the extended power play, but with eight seconds remaining, Dainius Zubrus walked in on Theodore after Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur (5-0 against the Panthers in the postseason) started the play with a slick pass to David Clarkson.
Less than a minute later, former Panthers winger Ryan Carter got around Ed Jovanovski and made it 3-0 with 5:04 left in the period. New Jersey's 26 shots on goal were the most in a postseason game since San Jose had 27 in a period against Calgary four years ago.
“It's tough to spot them three goals in the playoffs. We obviously needed a better start,'' Jovanovski said. “We scratched and clawed for space in the second and third and got some goals. We just ran out of time. It's never fun giving up  shots. Theodore really kept us in the game.''
Said Dineen: “Twenty-six shots was pretty indicative of the play in the first period. It didn't look pretty. Their pressure was a big difference. We got outplayed in our own building.''
The Panthers roared back in the second and didn't much resemble that team in the first. The Panthers looked sharp with the puck and finally broke Brodeur when Sean Bergenheim (nine goals with Tampa Bay last spring) continued his host postseason ways by scoring 7:33 into the period.
Bergenheim's goal gave the large red-clad crowd some hope and the place went crazy with 4:18 left in the second when Kris Versteeg put the puck between Brodeur's skates to make it 3-2.
Yet that was all the Panthers could get. The Devils clogged up the middle of the ice in the third as they went into prevent mode as the third period seemed to zip by. The Panthers outshot the Devils17-12 in the final 40 minutes.
“I think there was a mix of nerves and rust out there,'' Versteeg said. “You don't want to make too many excuses. We will give ourselves a chance if we found 60 minutes. I definitely thought we were coming back. We need to get the early lead next time.''
(3) FLORIDA PANTHERS V (6) NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Last year: Both teams missed the playoffs; Florida is back for the first time since 2000.
Playoff history: Devils swept Florida in 2000.
Friday: Devils at Panthers, 7 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise (WQAM-560; FS Florida, NHL Net)
What to watch:
Believe it or not, but the Panthers have plenty of playoff experience although this is a new experience for a good many.
Going against former coach Pete DeBoer is fun, but shutting down the Devils' top two lines won't be.
Who is in net for the Panthers? It looks like Jose Theodore makes his return after a tough couple of outings. Will the extra days off do him some good. The thought here is yes.
Will they? It'll be close.
The prediction: Devils in 7.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
YOUR 2000 FLORIDA PANTHERS PLAYOFF TEAM
No. 3 Paul Laus spent his entire career with the Panthers, playing from the inaugural season through 2001-02. One of the most popular players in franchise history, Laus is currently living near Toronto.
No. 4 Bret Hedican spent parts of two more seasons with the Panthers before being traded to Carolina where he won the Cup in 2006. Hedican, married to figure-skater Kristi Yamaguchi, works San Jose Sharks broadcasts.
No. 7 Mike Wilson spent parts of three seasons with the Panthers before knocking around both North American and European professional leagues until retiring in 2009.
No. 7 Trevor Kidd got hurt during the 1999-2000 season forcing Florida to trade Radek Dvorak for Mike Vernon. Kidd left the Panthers in 2002 and retired four years later. Kidd is a businessman living in Winnipeg.
No. 9 Len Barrie got into real estate after his playing days and ended up being a co-owner of the Lightning (it didn't end well). Barrie is currently the president of the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia junior Hockey League.
No. 10 Pavel Bure, known as the Russian Rocket, had his career cut short because of knee problems. Bure, who could be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this year, splits his time between Miami Beach and Moscow.
No. 12 Alex Hicks left the NHL after this playoff series and didn't return. Hicks spent the following six seasons playing professionally in Europe. He currently is a junior coach in Tempe, Arizona.
No. 16 Mike Sillinger retired in 2009 after playing for an NHL record 12 teams and being involved in a record nine trades. Sillinger is the Director of Player Development for the Edmonton Oilers.
No. 21 Mark Parrish left the Panthers after this
series, going to the Islanders as part of the Roberto Luongo/Olli Jokinen deal. He spent this past season in the AHL after playing for six more teams post-Panthers.
No. 22 Todd Simpson spent the entire playoff year with the Panthers but was traded to Phoenix the next season. Simpson, whose career ended in 2007, is now a real estate agent in West Kelowna, British Columbia.
No. 25 Viktor Kozlov kept a home in South Florida after leaving the Panthers in 2004; after playing for the Devils, Capitals and Islanders, Kozlov has spent the past three seasons playing in Russia.
No. 27 Scott Mellanby, the Panthers captain at the time, was traded to St. Louis in 2001 and he retired as the captain in 2007. After a few years in the Vancouver front office, Mellanby is now an assistant coach for the Blues.
No. 28 Jaroslav Spacek spent parts of three seasons with the Panthers before he was traded to Chicago 12 games
into the 2000-01 season. Spacek ended this season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
No. 29 Mike Vernon came to the Panthers after Kidd was hurt and was claimed by the Wild in the expansion draft. Vernon finished his career with Calgary – where his number was retired in 2007. He's currently involved in real estate.
No. 30 Mikhail Shtalenkov spent parts of seven seasons in the NHL but his short stint as the Panthers backup goalie was his last NHL action. Shtalenkov currently lives in Moscow.
No. 44 Rob Niedermayer was traded to Calgary in the Val Bure deal but ended up winning the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007. Niedermayer spent this season playing in Switzerland.